UPMC Physician Resources

Magee-Womens Research Institute Awarded $3.7 Million to Study Pregnancy and Heart Disease

Researchers at Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI) have been awarded a four-year $3.7 million grant from the American Heart Association (AHA) Go Red for Women Research Network to examine whether certain pregnancy-related blood vessel changes can uncover mechanisms of later-life cardiovascular disease (CVD) in women, identify women at highest risk, and guide new interventions to help them.

The causes of heart disease, which damages the inner walls of the blood vessels and can lead to spasms and decrease blood flow to the heart muscle, known as microvascular dysfunction, are unclear, said principal investigator, Carl Hubel, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and MWRI investigator. During pregnancy, profound metabolic and cardiovascular changes occur, putting extra stress on a woman’s body and requiring the heart and blood vessels to work harder. Researchers believe that studying these cardiovascular changes may reveal early mechanisms of CVD.

“This grant is an important next step for our research team in the ongoing assessment of using pregnancy as a lens to understand CVD in women throughout the life span,” explained Dr. Hubel. “Microvascular dysfunction is a devastating public health challenge because almost two-thirds of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have had no previous symptoms. We hope to build on the research of our previous studies by identifying mechanisms of CVD in women that are unmasked or perhaps affected by adverse pregnancy outcomes. By examining these relationships, we aim to discover early heart disease risks in women as well as the causes.”

In addition to Magee, four other centers make up the AHA Go Red for Women Research Network: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Columbia University Medical Center, University of California, San Diego and New York University Medical Center.

Researcher Named UPCI’s 2nd NCI Outstanding Investigator, Awarded $6.4M for Discovering Cancer Viruses

Patrick Moore, MD, MPH, has received the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Outstanding Investigator Award, a top honor given to accomplished cancer researchers, and was awarded $6.4 million to further his work into the link between viruses and cancer. This NCI grant recognizes exceptional past achievements to provide seven years of secured support, giving the investigator freedom from the pressure of ongoing grant competitions.

Dr. Moore’s award makes him the second researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) to receive this highly coveted recognition, given to just 60 people in the country since the grant program was created in 2014. UPCI’s Thomas Kensler, PhD, who studies chemoprevention, or how food can be used to lower the risk of developing cancer caused by unavoidable environmental toxins, was awarded the honor last year.

Dr. Moore is a distinguished professor and leader of the UPCI Cancer Virology Program, holding The Pittsburgh Foundation Chair in Innovative Cancer Research at Pitt. Together with his research partner and wife, Yuan Chang, MD, Dr. Moore identified two different viruses that cause Kaposi sarcoma and Merkel cell carcinoma.

“To have the NCI recognize not just one but two of our faculty really reflects the strength of our research here at UPCI,” said Nancy E. Davidson, MD, director of UPCI, partner with UPMC CancerCenter. “We have a strong bench of talent here, and the work Dr. Moore is doing is making a real difference in our quest to end cancer.”
The award will fund Dr. Moore’s research in three key areas:

1. Understanding the mechanism by which the virus that causes Merkel cell carcinoma turns normal cells into cancer.
2. Investigating unusual ways that the virus causing Kaposi sarcoma makes oncoproteins.
3. Identifying new ways to find viruses that cause cancer in humans.
Recently, the Moore-Chang lab found a new mechanism that cancer viruses use to regulate how cells translate RNA into proteins and developed an assay to discover a class of viruses called polyomaviruses.

“I am hopeful this research will help provide new insights into methods to reliably determine the role of viruses in human cancers and to uncover new common cancer pathways that are at work in both infectious and noninfectious tumors,” Dr. Moore said. “This is an exciting time in cancer research based on past discoveries, and I’m honored that the NCI has chosen to recognize my work with this award.”

The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award provides funding to investigators with outstanding records of productivity in cancer research to continue or embark upon new projects of unusual potential in cancer research over an extended period of seven years. The award was developed to provide investigators with substantial time to break new ground or extend previous discoveries to advance biomedical, behavioral or clinical cancer research.

“The NCI Outstanding Investigator Award addresses a problem that many cancer researchers experience: finding a balance between focusing on their science while ensuring that they will have funds to continue their research in the future,” said Dinah Singer, Ph.D., director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. “With seven years of uninterrupted funding, NCI is providing investigators the opportunity to fully develop exceptional and ambitious cancer research programs.”

Burning More Calories Associated with Greater Gray Matter Volume in Brain, Reduced Alzheimer’s Risk

Whether they jog, swim, garden or dance, physically active older persons  have larger gray matter volume in key brain areas responsible for memory and cognition, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UCLA.

The findings, published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, showed also that people who had Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment experienced less gray matter volume reduction over time if their exercise-associated calorie burn was high.

A growing number of studies indicate physical activity can help protect the brain from cognitive decline, said investigator James T. Becker, PhD, professor of psychiatry, Pitt School of Medicine. But typically people are more sedentary as they get older, which also is when the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias increases.

“Our current treatments for dementia are limited in their effectiveness, so developing approaches to prevent or slow these disorders is crucial,” Dr. Becker said. “Our study is one of the largest to examine the relationship between physical activity and cognitive decline, and the results strongly support the notion that staying active maintains brain health.”

Led by Cyrus Raji, MD, PhD, formerly a student at Pitt School of Medicine and now a senior radiology resident at UCLA, the team examined data obtained over five years from nearly 876 people 65 or older participating in the multicenter Cardiovascular Health Study. All participants had brain scans and periodic cognitive assessments. They also were surveyed about how frequently they engaged in physical activities, such as walking, tennis, dancing and golfing, to assess their calorie expenditure or energy output per week.

Using mathematical modeling, the researchers found that the individuals who burned the most calories had larger gray matter volumes in the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes of the brain, areas that are associated with memory, learning and performing complex cognitive tasks. In a subset of more than 300 participants at the Pitt site, those with the highest energy expenditure had larger gray matter volumes in key areas on initial brain scans and were half as likely to have developed Alzheimer’s disease five years later.

“Gray matter houses all of the neurons in your brain, so its volume can reflect neuronal health,” Dr. Raji explained. “We also noted that these volumes increased if people became more active over five years leading up to their brain MRI.”

He added that advancements in technology might soon make it feasible to conduct baseline neuroimaging studies of people who already have mild cognitive impairment or who are at risk for a dementia disorder, with the aim of prescribing lifestyle approaches such as physical activity to prevent further memory deterioration.

“Rather than wait for memory loss, we might consider putting the patient on an exercise program and then rescan later to see if there are any changes in the brain,” Dr. Raji said.

In a journal press release, George Perry, PhD, Dean of Sciences at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, called the research “a landmark study that links exercise to increases in gray matter and opens the field of lifestyle intervention to objective biological measurement.”

Other members of the research team include Kirk I. Erickson, PhD, Oscar L. Lopez, MD, H. Michael Gachi, PhD, and Lewis Kuller, MD, DrPH, all of the University of Pittsburgh; David A. Merrill, MD, PhD., Harris Eyre, MD, Sravya Mallam, BS, Nare Torosyan, BS, and Paul M. Thompson, PhD, all of UCLA; Owen T. Carmichael, PhD, of University of California, Davis; and W.T. Longstreth, Jr., MD, of the University of Washington.

The research was supported in part by funds from contract numbers N01-HC-80007, N01-HC-85079 through N01-540 HC-85086, N01-HC-35129, N01-HC-15103, N01-541 HC-55222, N01-HC-75150, N01-HC-45133 and grant HL080295 from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, with additional contribution from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

UPMC CancerCenter Re-Accredited By American College of Radiation Oncology

UPMC CancerCenter has received re-accreditation by the American College of Radiation Oncology (ACRO), maintaining its position as the largest comprehensive cancer network in the country to be accredited in radiation oncology. Two of UPMC CancerCenter’s newer network sites, UPMC Altoona and Butler Radiation Oncology centers, each received accreditation for the first time.

“This three-year accreditation recognizes the high-quality radiation oncology care that our facilities provide to the patients in our communities each day,” said Dwight E. Heron, MD, director of radiation oncology services at UPMC CancerCenter, partner with the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. “This accreditation exemplifies our ongoing commitment and the focused effort of our staff to exceed national quality standards set forth by our professional peers. I am extremely proud of our outcomes.”

ACRO is the premier national organization dedicated to radiation oncology, and its validation confirms that UPMC CancerCenter delivers the highest-quality care to its patients. The lengthy and in-depth accreditation process included a thorough review of patient charts, technology, staff certifications and documentation of processes for each radiation oncology site, among other factors, followed by ACRO’s visits to each site to survey day-to-day operations.

At its treatment locations in western Pennsylvania, UPMC CancerCenter uses a variety of cutting-edge techniques to provide care for the approximately 7,000 cancer patients undergoing radiation at UPMC every year. These include external beam radiotherapy, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and 3-D conformal radiation therapy; stereotactic radiosurgery using the GammaKnife, CyberKnife and TrueBeam technologies, among others; and brachytherapy.

ACRO developed its voluntary accreditation program to help promote the highest standards for radiation oncology.

New Placenta Model Could Reveal How Birth Defect-Causing Infectious Agents Cross From Mother to Baby

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI) have devised a cell-based model of the human placenta that could help explain how pathogens that cause birth defects, such as Zika virus, cross from mother to unborn child. The findings were published today in Science Advances.

The placenta is a complex and poorly understood organ that anchors the developing fetus to the uterus, nourishes the baby, and provides a barrier to the spread of microorganisms from an infected mother to the fetus, explained senior investigator Carolyn Coyne, PhD, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Pitt School of Medicine and a member of the MWRI.

“The human placenta is unique and unlike that of other many other placental mammals,” she said. “With our new model in the research toolkit, we and other scientists hope to advance our knowledge of the placenta, examine its function , and learn how it can prevent most, but not all, maternal infections from causing problems for the baby.

Researchers currently can obtain and study placental cell lines, but such cells do not fuse spontaneously to form the characteristic structure of the human organ. Some scientists study cells, called primary human trophoblasts, that are isolated from placentas obtained after childbirth, but such cells do not divide, can be more difficult to obtain, and are more difficult to genetically manipulate to learn about biochemical pathways that have a role in placental function, Dr. Coyne said.

Dr. Coyne’s team took a different approach: They cultured a human placental trophoblast cell line in a microgravity bioreactor system developed by NASA. The trophoblasts along with blood vessel cells were added to small dextran beads that were then spun around in a container filled with cell culture fluid, creating shear stress and rotational forces to better mimic the environment at the maternal-fetal interface than static cell-culture systems.

As a result, the cells fused to form syncytiotrophoblasts, and thus more closely resemble the primary cells lining the outermost layer of the tree-like or villous structure of the human placental tissue. Next, the researchers tested the functional properties of their model by exposing it to a virus and to Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces that can lead to fetal infection, causing miscarriage, congenital disease and/or disability later in life.

“We found that the syncytiotrophoblasts formed in our system recapitulated the barrier properties of the naturally occurring cells and they resisted infection by a model virus and three genetically different strains of Toxoplasma,” said co-investigator Jon P. Boyle, PhD, associate professor of biological sciences at Pitt. “With this model, we can experiment with different biological factors to see what might allow an infectious agent to get through the placental barrier to the fetus.”

Understanding the placenta might one day lead to ways to prevent fetal damage from the so-called TORCH infections: toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus, herpes and HIV, he added.

The researchers are beginning to use their model to test whether Zika virus, and other pathogens associated with congenital disease, can infect placental cells and/or cross the placental barrier.

Research team members include Cameron McConkey, BS, Elizabeth Delorme-Axford, PhD, and Yoel Sadovsky, MD, all of the University of Pittsburgh; Cheryl A. Nickerson, PhD, of Arizona State University; and Kwang Sik Kim, MD, of Johns Hopkins University.

The project was funded by National Institutes of Health grants AI081759 and HD075665 and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

UPMC Partners with medCPU to Rapidly Expand Innovative Clinical Decision-Support Technology

UPMC and medCPU Inc. today announced a far-reaching strategic partnership in which UPMC, one of the nation’s leading integrated health systems, will take a majority interest in this technology innovator, become a customer of medCPU’s real-time decision support solutions and co-develop additional products with the goal of improving patient outcomes.

As part of this transaction, UPMC has commenced a tender offer to purchase stock from existing non-employee medCPU shareholders and expects to hold majority ownership in the privately held company when the offer is completed in the second quarter of this year. In addition to the stock purchase, UPMC will lead an investment round of $35 million in new capital to accelerate the expansion of New York-based medCPU. Existing medCPU shareholder Merck Global Health Innovation Fund also is participating in this round.

“Our partnership with medCPU will provide UPMC with technology and solutions that will be immediately valuable to our clinicians and patients. Longer term, this powerful technology will enable the development of other data-dependent applications in such critical areas as care management, population health and consumer engagement,” said Tal Heppenstall, president of UPMC Enterprises, the commercialization arm of UPMC which led this investment. “medCPU is a perfect example of the kind of technological innovation nurtured by UPMC Enterprises to help us transform the delivery of care, not only at UPMC but around the world.”

medCPU, which already counts more than 60 hospital facilities among its clients, is opening a Pittsburgh office, where it will hire more than 20 engineers and other staff to work with UPMC to co-develop additional products and to enhance its existing solutions.

“We are excited to have UPMC as a majority partner and investor,” said Sonia Ben-Yehuda, president and co-founder, medCPU. “Having access to the clinical, technological and operational expertise of one of the country’s leading integrated health care providers and insurance systems will enable medCPU to rapidly expand our current capabilities and leverage our technology to greatly impact an industry that is moving quickly to value-based care.”

Through its revolutionary, seamless technology, medCPU’s solution addresses the health care IT challenges of interoperability, capturing all relevant patient data, and understanding free text, dictation and structured data from electronic medical records and ancillary systems.

According to Eyal Ephrat, MD, chief executive officer and co-founder of medCPU, “Our solution provides precise, real-time decision support prompts to clinicians without interrupting their workflow.”

This novel technology overcomes many of the obstacles that currently make it difficult to aggregate and normalize information across siloed data systems. medCPU’s solution makes it possible to combine rich, highly accurate information with extensive clinical best-practice content and services—resulting in reduced “alert fatigue” and improved response rates, thus avoiding clinical errors and reducing costs.

“Our vision at UPMC is to enable care providers to deliver the right care to our patients every time. Our partnership with medCPU will help drive the clinical pathways developed by our leading clinicians to the point of care, where it matters most,” said Steven Shapiro, MD, chief medical and scientific officer of UPMC.

Nephrotic Syndrome Symposium

Nephrotic Syndrome: Clinical Challenges and Evidence-based Management
May 12, 2016 – 9:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
4401 Penn Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15224

Please join us for this one day event will engage glomerular kidney disease researchers, clinicians, other healthcare professionals and patient families. This event promises to foster new collaborations, close the gaps between research and clinical care and form common research agendas.

Course Directors
Agnieszka Swiatecka-Urban, MD
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC,
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Hoda Kaldas, MD
University of Pittsburgh

To view the Save the Date flyer, click here.
For more information or to register, click here.


Association of Academic Physiatrists Honors Pitt/UPMC Physician

Michael Boninger, M.D., director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and professor and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, received the 2016 Association of Academic Physiatrists (AAP) Distinguished Academician Award at the association’s annual meeting Friday in Sacramento, Calif. Each year, the AAP honors one academic physiatrist who has achieved distinction and peer recognition regionally or nationally for outstanding performance in teaching, research or administration.

“I feel very lucky to work in a field where I have the opportunity to help people. The University of Pittsburgh and UPMC have provided me the opportunity, support and collaborators to excel in this pursuit,” Dr. Boninger said.

The author of four U.S. patents, Dr. Boninger is recognized for his extensive research on spinal cord injury, assistive technology and overuse injuries, particularly those associated with manual wheelchair propulsion.

Dr. Boninger earned his medical degree at Ohio State University. He completed residencies at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan Medical Center, where he became the chief resident, physical medicine and rehabilitation. He came to the University of Pittsburgh when he won a postdoctoral fellowship in engineering and rehabilitation technology in 1994.

The AAP Distinguished Academician Award was established in 1995. Dr. Boninger is the first faculty member from Pitt’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation to win this national award.

Chief of Hematology/Oncology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC Selected for Pediatric Cancer MoonShot Consortium

PrintLinda McAllister-Lucas, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, has been selected as a member of the prestigious Pediatric Cancer MoonShot Consortium.

The announcement was made at the Cancer MoonShot 2020 press conference held this week in Phoenix.

Dr. McAllister-Lucas is an internationally recognized expert in lymphoma whose research has provided new insights into the molecular basis of these types of cancers.

The Cancer MoonShot 2020 Program is a cancer collaborative initiative seeking to accelerate the potential of combination immunotherapy as the next-generation standard of care for cancer patients. This group aims to explore a new paradigm in cancer care by initiating randomized Phase II trials involving 20,000 patients with 20 tumor types within the next 36 months. These findings will inform Phase III trials and the aspirational “moonshot” to develop effective, vaccine-based immunotherapies to combat cancer by 2020.

The newly formed consortium will focus on bringing the promise of immunotherapy to children diagnosed with the disease. The group will seek to apply the most comprehensive diagnostic testing available—whole genomic and proteomic analysis—and leverage proven and promising combination immunotherapies and clinical trials under the QUantitative, Integrative Lifelong Trial (QUILT) Program within the Cancer MoonShot 2020 mission.

“Less than 1 percent of cancers in the United States occur in pediatric patients. And yet, the loss of years and quality of life to pediatric cancer is huge,” said Dr. McAllister-Lucas, also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “The Cancer MoonShot 2020 will pour resources into research investigating the cause, the diagnosis and the treatment of pediatric cancers. This MoonShot will start a new era of hope for our patients and their families, and will lead the way toward more effective, less toxic treatments, and higher quality, longer lives for children with cancer.”

Dr. McAllister-Lucas is one of 10 members from various academic centers across the United States to be included in the consortium. Other centers include: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center; Children’s Hospital of Orange County; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Duke Department of Pediatrics – Duke University School of Medicine; Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center; Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital; Phoenix Children’s Hospital; and Sanford Health.

The Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Children’s provides diagnosis, treatment and follow-up for children, adolescents and young adults with cancer and blood disorders. The division is the largest, most comprehensive pediatric cancer and blood disease center in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia and has been a member of the Children’s Oncology Group, a multi-institutional pediatric cancer research organization sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, since 1961.

For more information on Dr. McAllister-Lucas, visit www.chp.edu.

Lantern raises $17M to provide accessible online mental health wellness services; partners with healthcare leader UPMC

Lantern, the leader in evidence-based online mental health wellness services, today announced the close of a $17 million investment led by Pittsburgh-based healthcare giant UPMC. The investment reflects a commitment from Lantern and UPMC to transform the way emotional wellbeing services are delivered and accessed in the U.S. UPMC was joined by all previous Lantern investors, including Mayfield Fund, SoftTech Venture Capital and Stanford University.

As a leading mental health provider and research organization, UPMC will partner with Lantern to leverage its platform within a myriad of clinical settings and conditions.

“We are excited about reaching more people with behavioral health issues through this readily accessible, scalable, and cost-effective platform,” said Tal Heppenstall, president of UPMC Enterprises, the commercialization arm of UPMC, which spearheaded this investment. “This partnership is an excellent example of our mission at UPMC Enterprises: finding creative solutions and technologies to solve some of the most challenging problems in healthcare.”

UPMC, one of the largest integrated healthcare delivery systems in the U.S., is “the ideal partner,” said Alejandro Foung, Lantern co-founder and CEO. “UPMC has a unique view into the continuum of care, from insuring more than 2.8 million individuals, to administering care preventatively and when patients need it most through its more than 20 hospitals and 3,500 employed physicians,” said Foung. “A large part of UPMC’s appeal to Lantern is its focus on disease prevention, a sharp contrast to the fee-for-service model that currently dominates the behavioral health landscape. Because of our shared focus on prevention to solve health challenges before they even arise or manifest, Lantern and UPMC are the perfect match.”

Behavioral health problems are among the most pressing health issues facing the country, affecting more than 18 percent of adults. Depression and anxiety disorders are among the top five drivers of medical costs in primary care settings—and are even more common and costly among those with chronic medical conditions. Given the shortage of mental health workers, two-thirds of primary care physicians report difficulty referring patients to behavioral health services.

UPMC clinicians will work with Lantern on pilots aimed at expanding its programs to additional behavioral health issues and potentially to populations of patients with more complex conditions. “Integrating behavioral health into broader medical care and focusing on prevention for large groups of patients is the only way that we can deliver high-quality, cost-effective mental healthcare,” said Eva Szigethy, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, and medicine at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who will be working closely with the Lantern team.

The largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania, UPMC integrates 60,000 employees, more than 20 hospitals, more than 500 doctors’ offices and outpatient sites, a health insurance division, and international and commercial operations. Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences, UPMC ranks No. 13 in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report annual Honor Roll of America’s Best Hospitals.

Building on UPMC’s 20-year track record of successful commercialization activity, UPMC Enterprises is dedicated to creating exceptional healthcare innovations that will have a measurable impact on the cost and quality of care. By partnering with innovators like Lantern, UPMC Enterprises is focused on creating and commercializing solutions in four key areas: clinical tools that will transform the delivery of care, population health management that will be essential in health care’s move from volume to value, consumer-centric healthcare, and business services that improve efficiency.

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